The Hybrid Track

Hybrid positions offer the chance to engage in higher education roles beyond the tenure track while keeping a hand in the classroom and scholarly work, writes Rebbecca Kaplan.

February 20, 2018
 
 
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Life beyond the tenure track can feel a little like starring in a Choose Your Own Adventure story, the kind where one decision could lead to possible glory, treasure or infinite happiness, while another could end in ruin, despair or potentially being eaten by a shark. With each unfolding chapter, feelings of uncertainty and trepidation emerge about the road ahead. Will I make the right decision?

And in the case of newly minted Ph.D.s, the question is, what reality awaits me beyond the tenure track? Will that reality be better or worse than having just stayed the course? What options even exist for Ph.D.s who hope or are required to choose their next adventure? Why can’t I, in real life, just flip to the end of the book to see how it all works out?

Of course, higher education itself can provide a viable and rewarding career path for academics seeking to break new ground in familiar territory. It’s no wonder that discussions of alternative academic, or alt-ac, employment have captivated our attention the way they have in recent years. As it had gained traction, the alt-ac movement has blazed its own trail as the path for Ph.D.s seeking opportunities in higher education beyond the tenure track, and it has influenced how we define the scope and applicability of academic work.

Somewhat underexplored, however, is the possibility of forging hybrid academic positions, or the chance to engage in higher education roles beyond the tenure track while maintaining a faculty appointment of some variety -- and thus, a toe in the classroom and scholarly work. Other people have weighed in on the subject -- such as Donna Bickford and Anne Mitchell Whisnant with their term administrator-scholars -- but as long as conversations about Ph.D. futures remain integral to our profession, I encourage us all to continue to explore further hybrid academic roles.

In my own experience, I transitioned almost immediately after completing my Ph.D. program in Hispanic studies to a position launching a Spanish immersion program at a nearby liberal arts college, where I worked closely with faculty, marketing, admissions and program representatives to develop, publicize and recruit for the new program. The role drew on my own immersion experiences and academic training and allowed me to act as a bridge between program faculty members and college administrators. I soon found myself gaining fluency in each group’s language.

That opportunity led to the next. In my current hybrid role at Emory University, I lead a multiyear grant-supported initiative in M.B.A. admissions at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, where I identify and forge partnerships meant to increase Latino/Hispanic enrollment across the school’s M.B.A. programs. I also hold an instructorship in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, where I have developed and now teach the department’s undergraduate business Spanish curriculum.

This professional hybridity draws daily on my academic preparation in language and cultural studies to advance my work at the business school, and I’ve adjusted my academic interests to encompass the pedagogy of language for business and other professions, as well as topics of cross-cultural business communication and management. I further merged my hybrid academic roles earlier this school year by developing a suite of cultural competency and language training workshops for M.B.A. students studying business abroad.

Although I didn’t necessarily set out to create this hybrid scenario for myself, from where I am now, roughly seven years post-Ph.D., I can say with confidence that such a blending of positions and skill sets has added a new dimension to who I am as a professional and has allowed me to routinely contribute to the university in novel, previously unforeseen, ways. The chance to create a new path for myself -- one that combines learning an important function of higher education while still allowing me to contribute to and grow my field of expertise and teaching portfolio -- has been nothing short of exhilarating.

I am just one person, though, and this has been my path. University officials and Ph.D. job seekers alike would be wise to take note of these kinds of hybrid academic arrangements and the potential benefits that they can gain from them. In an age when departments across the disciplines rely heavily on contingent labor and Ph.D.s seek viable employment in which they can still contribute to their fields, hybrid opportunities, ideally, will help satisfy both needs and, over the long term, prompt university officials to think more expansively and creatively about potential synergies around the quad.

To that end in particular, hybrid academics have the distinct vantage point of working interdepartmentally, and as a result, they can see the institutions they serve from many different angles. This perspective not only fosters better institutional knowledge and greater professional dexterity for leading cross-functional groups and projects, but it can also drive innovative and collaborative thinking on the part of the hybrid academic. As bridge builders, hybrid academics can identify the needs, motivators and barriers their respective departments face and work just as creatively to offer solutions -- often to benefit the university as a whole.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, professor of pedagogy in the department of Spanish and Portuguese and director of engaged learning with Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, did just that when the provost’s office contacted her in 2010 about the possibility of hosting a large-scale Latino youth leadership event. Her hybrid role allowed her to engage effectively with community partners, advise key administrators and collaborate with other faculty members to bring the event to fruition. Her efforts resulted in Emory partnering with the Latin American Association to bring nearly 2,000 Latino youth to our campus for three consecutive years, positively influencing everything from undergraduate admissions and town-and-gown relations to the university’s long-term strategic plans.

Supporting this kind of professional creativity and flexibility thus permits the hybrid academic to engage the full breadth of their skill set, thereby increasing the likelihood that this person will remain an enthusiastic and involved contributor to the university and academic life. At the same time, the hybrid academic can look forward to having a distinct pulse on the needs and trends of the institution, and higher education in general, which, in the true spirit of hybridity, could broaden that individual’s teaching and scholarly interests. The university benefits when its employees, who are able and interested in doing so, advance its scholarly mission in original and thought-provoking ways, thus beginning a virtuous cycle.

All that said, there is no perfect path, of course. Moreover, it’s been my experience that hybrid academic roles create tremendous headaches for the HR professionals who struggle to categorize them, and they also certainly require a forward-thinking supervisor willing to forgo a few hours of the employee’s schedule for classroom time.

But in the Choose Your Own Adventure of career options available to Ph.D.s, hybrid academic opportunities would seem to benefit the institutions that facilitate them and offer those who pursue them the chance to most fully combine their academic training with future professional pursuits.

Plus, when choosing your next chapter, isn’t it the best adventure when you can create an entire new set of possibilities?

Bio

Rebbecca Kaplan is associate director of M.B.A. admissions with Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and an instructor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese.

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